The American football season is full swing. The NFL is celebrating 100 years of this game of athletic and mental matchups. As an organization, the NFL is concerned with increasing its income by providing an entertainment product. To this end, each year it makes changes to its policies as they apply to players and clubs. They adjust in-game rules when defenses become too stifling, so that games are viewer-friendly and high-scoring. They investigate new technologies to upgrade equipment in ways that improve player safety. The League tweaks officiating practices based on perceived flaws or egregious errors from the previous season, to mixed results.
With the agony and ecstasy of each week’s antics and heroics, I can’t help but dream about applying Lean principles to making the game better in general, and for my Seahawks in particular. At the moment I am doing some work with Total Productive Maintenance, or TPM, which deals with making plant operations and production systems more effective. Here are some thoughts on how to get the best out of an NFL franchise by applying TPM principles.
How does TPM Apply to NFL Franchises?
TPM deals with improving the effectiveness of how we use equipment to create value. In American football, teams can be viewed not as machines, but as complex social and athletic systems competing with each other. Despite some franchises being perennial losers and winners in the NFL, there is remarkable parity among teams in terms of talent. Each week demonstrates that on any given Sunday, any team can beat any other one.
TPM teaches us that winning is not about how good your machines are. It is about how well you minimize so-called equipment losses. Winning football is largely a matter of having an average or better game plan and executing it well. In other words, a League-average team that minimizes its mistakes and unwanted events will beat the on-paper elite team that bungles the execution of its game plan, almost every time.
The Six Big Losses in an NFL Game
In TPM, these unwanted events are categorized into the Six Big Losses. Here they are, restated with some American football examples
Breakdowns. Injuries. On this, more in a moment.
Changeovers and adjustments. Twelve players on the field as a result of a failure to execute personnel changes between plays. Illegal formation. Misunderstanding one’s assignment on a play. Sacks and tackles for loss resulting from to inadequate blocking or skilled players’ inability to create separation from defensive backs.It is the job of the defense ruin the plans of the offense however they can. It is the job of a good offense to find favorable mismatches and adjust the play calling to take advantage of it before the snap.
Reduced speed. Hesitation of players on offenses reading defensive coverages. Hesitation of defenders due to confusion over their assignment. Playing slower while in recovery from injury. Slower play due to dehydration. Slower play due to accumulated fatigue late in games or late in season. Mismatch between a player’s strengths and the team’s scheme.
Minor stops and idling. Slips due to rain, snow or poor field conditions. Calling time outs to correct confusion, crowd noise or mismatches. Delay of game penalties. False starts.
Defects. Dropped catches. Fumbles, interceptions, blocked kicks. Questionable play calling. Failure to read defenses. Failure to react to offensive formations. Personal fouls due to poor tackling technique. Skilled players running wrong routes. Busted coverages due to miscommunication among defenders.
Startup and yield losses. Slow starts in games. Slow starts to the season. Failing to adjust the game plan during to compensate for the opponent’s game plan. Bad judgments by rookie players due to lack of game and practice repetitions.
Putting It All Together: Overall Team Effectiveness
Overall Team Effectiveness. From the product of the metrics above we can calculate an overall effectiveness percentage for the team. A 53-man roster is never 100% available, performing at 100% of their speed and strength, or 100% mistake-free. If a team’s reality was more like 85% x 90% x 90% the team is only 65% as effective as their full potential. That leaves a lot of room for improvement. It also shows why on any given Sunday a 7/10 team running at 90% OTE can defeat a 10/10 team running at 60% OTE.
In manufacturing, systematically reducing the six big losses increases available equipment capacity. This is experienced as more time to add value and create product. In American football, the loss is not time but yards. When enough yards are gained in series, this results in points, and the team with the most points wins.
NFL coaches, trainers and players are aware of all of the above. But how much time do teams spend measuring and systematically reducing these losses? It may seem better for a running back to spend hours in the weight room or training to run faster. However, if they fumble the ball or can’t recognize and hit the hole in the defense, their superior athleticism is wasted. If all aspects of the game such as talent selection, training, game planning, play calling, etc. were viewed from a pure loss-reduction perspective, how different would an NFL franchise’s performance be?
Forced Deterioration and Player Injuries
Systemic aims of TPM include restoring equipment to good operating conditions, keeping them in good condition, and preventing environmental or operating conditions that cause deterioration. The wear-and-tear that NFL players put themselves through is the very definition of forced deterioration. These are large men colliding with each other at 15-20 miles per hour dozens of times over a three-hour period each week during a five month period. It is a violent sport. The League recognizes the importance of player safety for the sustainability of the game.
There are four TPM metrics to address breakdown losses, i.e. player injuries
Injury Rate is how often an injury happens. IR = (total number of injuries) / (total player-hours). This is expressed as injuries per player-hour. A player-hour is defined as time players spend in training, practice, in games when they could be hurt. For this metric, the fewer the better.
Mean Time Between Injuries is average time between injury events. MTBI = (total player-hours) / (total number of injuries). For the hours between injury metric, the longer the better.
Mean Time To Recovery is average time to recovery from injury. MTTR = (total recovery time) / (total number of recoverable injuries). The shorter this metric, the faster players are returning to full health.
Mean Time To Failure is similar to MTBI but unlike it, measures the average time span until a non-recoverable or career-ending injury event happens. MTTF = (total player-hours) / (total number of career-ending injuries). For this metric, the shorter the better.
These can be measured for the League as a whole and also per team. Data can be stratified by player position, years in the League, number of snaps played, by practice time versus in-game, preseason or in-season, and different weeks during the season, Sundays versus Mondays versus Thursdays. Sports medicine and data science can combine to predict and help prevent injuries from fatigue build up, inadequate recovery, acute and chronic physical burdens.
Focused Improvement fo the Next 100 Years
Focused Improvement is just one of the pillars of a TPM program. It focuses on systematically reducing the six big losses. It quantifies, prioritizes, analyzes causes and targets corrective action one by one. Sincere and focused improvement of these metrics, starting with reducing injuries, can help the NFL entertain fans for another 100 years.